A TINY blackface lamb, rescued from drowning in a river, is at the centre of a bizarre custody battle between an animal sanctuary and a farmer who claims he wants to save the young sheep becoming a “castrated and knackered fairground attraction.”
Farmer John McIrvine alleges the lamb - dragged from a river by a teenage schoolgirl shortly after being born - has been “stolen” by the owners of the Willows Animal Sanctuary - a charity which is regularly visited by First Minister Alex Salmond.
The little lamb - now named “River” - has already become part of an “animal assisted” therapy programme for vulnerable adults run as part of the sanctuary’s activities.
And the trustees of the charity, in turn, have accused the farmer of leaving the vulnerable adults who have now befriended the lamb completely devastated at the prospect of losing him. They are refusing the hand River back to the farmer until he can produce the evidence that he is the lamb’s rightful owner.
Mr McIrvine, of Strachan, near Banchory in Aberdeenshire, recently successfully sued his father for £300,000 following a long-running feud over the family business.
And in a message to the charity, posted on a social networking site, he declared: “River has a future as a breeding ram, not spending his time castrated with a goat and a pony” adding that he does not want the sheep to end up as a “castrated and knackered fairground attraction.”
But Kate Robinson, a trustee of the charity, said today she was determined to hold on to the lamb until the farmer can prove his legal claim to the ownership of the lamb.
And she said: “We are powerless and we just asking this person that, if he proves his claim, can he please just this once consider these vulnerable people and allow us to keep the lamb
“We are still waiting to hear from him as to his claim. But we are hoping that with all the attention we are getting it might make him think twice and accept that this lamb - which could have died - has now come to a place where it is doing enormous good by helping vulnerable people.
“These people have felt safe in bonding with this lamb. Being here at Willows they know that it is not going to market or anything like that because it would live out its natural life here. Now it’s all under threat and they are deeply distressed. Several people have been tears because of this.”
River was only a few hours old when schoolgirl Kirsty Finnie, aged 15, saved him from drowning in the Water of Feugh, a tributary of the Dee, near Banchory.
After caring for him at her home at Peterculter, Kirsty, 15, and her mum, Shirley, decided to take him to the Willows Animal Sanctuary, near the First Minister’s home. at Strichen.
Kirsty has described what happened in a message on the sanctuary’s Facebook page.
She states:” On Monday 8 April I rescued a drowning lamb from the river near Feughside caravan park. I went into the river and pulled it out, by that time it had given up. I carried it back to the caravan, wrapped it in a towel and put a heater on. It recovered but was very weak. We couldn’t see any sheep nearby so we think it had been swept down the river. It doesn’t have any tags and still had a bit of its umbilical cord.
“We looked up online how we should look after it. We decided it would be best to put him to Willow Animal Sanctuary so he could live a happy contented life.”
Ms Robinson explained that after Kirty’s message had been posted she got a phone call from the irate farmer, laying claim to the lamb.
She said: “He first of all telephoned and said he was the owner and wanted the lamb back. But we explained to him that we couldn’t just hand back an animal to anyone who claimed to be the owner and that he would have to prove he was the owner.
“He was quite cross and put the phone down. The following day we got telephone message from his solicitor saying he wanted the lamb back. “
Ms Robinson continued: “Half of our charitable purpose is for vulnerable people and we have an animal assisted therapy programme with all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. By that time this lamb had joined our therapy programme and all of these people have formed a strong attachment and are absolutely devastated at the thought of losing it.
“It is highly probable that it is his lamb but it has to be proved - otherwise we would be handing out animals left, right and centre to people saying an animal was theirs. And you can’t do that as a charity and people would castigate us if we did.
“We thought the agreement was that the farmer would put his claim in writing with any evidence that he had and that it would go to the trustees and be taken forward from there. But instead that night he posted a message on our Facebook page, saying ‘When can I have back my lamb’ and that the police had been informed. He says the lamb was stolen.”
She claimed: “He has totally upped the ante and we have been left completely shocked. We took this poor little soul into our care in good faith from the people who had rescued him. Without them he would have been dead.
“They are terribly upset as they thought they had done the right thing and the people in our therapy programme are completely distraught.”
On his personal Facebook page, Mr McIrvine today posted: “Free River from the funny farm.”
And he told The Scotsman that he was willing to provide the sanctuary with another “cute” lamb so he can be reunited with with the young blackface he says has one of the best breeding potentials of any lamb he has had.
Mr McIrvine stressed that he was only pressing for the return of River because he was an “exceptional tup lamb” and possibly worth over £1,000 to his farm.
He said: “If he was just an ordinary tup lamb with no breeding potential it wouldn’t be an issue. But he is one of the best lambs I have ever had.
“I bought rams last year and one of them cost £1600 and another £700. And I got £1500 for one myself. That’s the sort of value we are speaking about here. But they talking about castrating him and it’s going to escalate through my solicitor if that happens.
“Their animals don’t breed with anything. Instead of being a ram, six months from now, with 40 or 50 females, he could be a castrated thing going about with goats and a pony or another sheep at that place.
“I do realise he is maybe very well liked by a lot of people up there but I can give them another lamb just as cute.”
Mr McIrvine said he accepted that he was being portrayed as the “villain of the piece” in the social media. But he insisted: “This situation can be resolved. I have offered the sanctuary a donation and offered a replacement lamb that doesn’t have the same breeding potential. But they don’t want to know and that’s where we’ve got an issue.
“And if this lamb is castrated we are going into litigation. It is my living and I need the lamb.”
He explained that he had helped deliver the lamb at 6am on the day that River vanished. He said the lamb could only have been a few hours old when he became separated from his mother and slipped down the river bank. He had been astounded when he learned through a neighbour that the lamb had ended up in an animal sanctuary more than 70 miles away.
Mr McIrvine added: “I had assumed it would have been returned to me when I made contact. Now that they won’t give me the lamb back the story is taking a darker sort of twist.”